Tale of Juelle

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Summary

In the long forgotten past Juelle Fieldsman yearns for freedom from her repressive life. Opportunity strikes when a rugged outlaw crashes into her family’s farm, thrashed by a monster to near death! Nursing the man back to health lights a spark she has not felt before. What will happen when she runs away with him? What awaits her in the war-ruined village of Delhia? Julian Fieldsman, the eldest son of the haggard, war-weathered family, is filled with outrage at what is and what could be. When tragedy blights his family he will spring into action, unleashing himself on a world uncaring and unforgiving. But he is quickly derailed into unknown and dangerous territory when he is captured by bandits! Can he survive and save his runaway sister from the man who took her? Young, magically gifted Hern Fieldsman cannot bear to see his family divided. Desperate to help any way he can, he sets out with a mysterious visitor in search of himself with the hope that he may one day reunite his family. But what secrets might this generous stranger be hiding and what dangers await him in the ominous village of Delhia?

Genre:
Fantasy / Adventure
Author:
C.G. Palmer
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
12
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

A Trip to the Market

Ae Punle une ji Kisteo

“A Trip to the Market”

Hern

10th of Aselium Month, Year 27 after Founding

With a fuss the two young brothers sat down on either side of the eldest, Julian. With a crack of the whip, the asses began pulling the cart stuffed with wheat from their farm to the main road.

While they rode on, Hern wondered how he got caught up in this mess. He had just been sitting there, minding his own business eating breakfast! Why did he get stuck with whiny Lu-Lu and uptight Ju-Ju?! Lushace was twelve too, the same age as he was! He had no right being such a little brat! His mother Aileen always spoiled him, giving in to him whenever he cried just long enough.

And Julian…he needed to get laid.

“Shut it, brat,” Julian snapped.

Oops. He hadn’t meant to say that last part aloud.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Lushace agreed. “You need to relax, Ju-Ju!

“Yeah, I hear girls can help you do that!” Hern teased. “You know Markus Roanoke?”

“Oooh, I hear he has a girlfriend!” Lushace added. “How old is he now?”

“I think he’s fifteen!” Then the two gave a mock gasp in accidental unison. Hern continued, “Ju-Ju! Aren’t you…?”

A hammer struck his left cheek, erupting in a stinging pain; he let out a surprised yelp.

“I said shut it!” Julian growled, rubbing his knuckles. Stifling a sniff, Hern turned to face forward, holding his hand to his cheek.

“Asshole,” Lushace spat.

A loud smack emanated, and the cart jiggled from the movement; Lushace was now holding his cheek and facing forward too.

His face hurting now, Hern tried to distract himself and thought back to that morning. He really had been just minding his own business. But Julian went and raised a ruckus during breakfast about how the girls can’t go anywhere alone and how wrong that was! Mekune knows Hern agreed, but he wasn’t about to raise a fuss over it, and his older brother decided to do this every month!

And after Julian had started, then of course Juelle chimed in. She has a right to—it involves her—but then Mother Aileen started backing her on it and finally…

Their father had had enough after that and snapped at everyone to be quiet, then proceeded to lecture them all once more on the dangers of girls in the marketplace, and because Julian wanted company so bad, he would get Hern and Lushace.

Never mind. This wasn’t helping him feel better at all! Shaking his head, Hern tried distracting himself further by thinking of what Mother Hellin liked to tell them about the marketplace. It was the coolest place for miles, with so many colorful characters and goods every time Hern visited!

The Ji-Olhani Marketplace was a bustling crossroads between the major and minor farms in the area and a connecting point of the eastern half of the Kingdom of Leoria. It was where farmers sold their crops, either in person or through a representative, and where traders, buyers, merchants, travelers, and all other kinds came to purchase them. Alongside the farmers and their harvests, one could always find the shadier and more interesting merchants selling trinkets, jewelry, pottery, paintings, perfumes, potions, and the like.

Ever since he had first witnessed the heavily trodden pathways, colorful tents, and sparkling stalls of the marketplace, Hern had wanted to flick from shop to shop purchasing every interesting and tasty thing he could find! But that had yet to happen, and he knew today wasn’t going to be that day. Not with Julian watching them and in such a bad mood.

Their oldest brother was always getting the adult’s attention—he was the firstborn after all—and their grandmother Arleen loved him! She always gave him one more treat than the rest, read him one more story, or hugged him just a little longer than everyone else.

Spoiled old asshole!

They rolled up to their spot in the marketplace. Their family was relatively new to the area so they weren’t actually allowed a spot in the marketplace. They had to setup just outside of the inner areas where only the most unwanted of peddlers plied their trade, despite there being plenty of space available “inside.”

It wasn’t Hern’s first time being stuck with Julian in the marketplace. The old farmers always hated the new ones, and they seemed to hate his family the most. They made life hard on them by scaring away customers by telling them things like the Fieldsmans’ crops were maggot infested and rotten! Or not to trust newcomers and stick with the old reliable ones! One time, a few men from the Fairweather Family walked over, knocked down their crops, and stomped them in the dirt. But nobody around them did anything about it, and especially not Julian!

Hern might be young but he could see the farm and his family was struggling. They needed some help, and Julian sure wasn’t going to be the one to do it. He didn’t even try to display their crops; he just left them piled in the wagon while the donkeys ate from their feed bags!

That’s where they ended up today, too, as Julian stopped the wagon and fitted the bags on the asses. With a unified sigh, Hern and Lushace got down, leaned against the side of the wagon, and stared ahead while shooting longing glances at the inner marketplace. Stalls, stands, mats, and tents were covered with glittering objects, foods, clothes, and mystery. Persons of many stations, statuses, and class came to the Ji-Olhani Marketplace to purchase all manner of goods and supplies. Their many-colored clothes only helped to accentuate the market’s powerful allure.

After a few hours out in the morning sun, Hern had begun pacing about in front of the cart, kicking stones around to busy himself. Few people looked at their poorly advertised stock, and when they did, Julian didn’t make any effort to sell; he just stared off into space like a dolt. Even the man across from them, who was selling serpents—serpents, for crying out loud—was doing better than them!

Hern had heard somewhere that snake bites were good for healing sicknesses, not that they used anything like that back home. Apparently, people wanted to get bit by snakes more than they wanted Fieldsman crops. That sure was an uplifting realization…

Things started to change when a middle-aged man walked up, draped in long white robes that covered his shoulders and left his arms bare. It seemed a little peculiar to Hern and he thought to make fun of it, but the man seemed genuinely interested in their crops. He even began asking Julian questions, snapping the lazy ass out of his stupor.

While Julian was busy answering the man, Lushace snuck up from behind Hern and nudged him, knocking him out of his own semi-interested listening. His brother gave a mischievous nod toward the marketplace. Hern got the message, and the two crept away, shooting glances at Julian to make sure he was still distracted. Once they were sure it was safe enough, the two bolted for the market, dashing through the crowds as they put more distance between themselves and their eldest brother.

He was in it! The marketplace! Without his parents to hold him back! His heart raced as he looked around with a big, stupid grin, taking in all the sights his thirsty eyes could find.

There was a stall selling roasted meats, right off a spit! And next to it, another one selling glittering beads! And behind him, a farmer selling his crops with a proper set up! The crops laid out one next to the other on a large slanted table where anyone could tell their quality. Much better than theirs …

Lushace grabbed Hern’s arm to pull him along. Hern let it happen, distracted as he was by the sights and sounds all around him as the noisome street was filled with offers, counteroffers, discussions, gossip, and more!

“Oooh, Hern! Let’s go there!” Lushace pointed eagerly to a large purple tent draped with wind chimes and drifting incense pots. Hern was about to say something about it when he looked around and saw a gathering crowd of people around something in a clearing.

“No no no, let’s see what they’re looking at!” he pleaded, pulling away and causing Lushace to look back at him. He didn’t have a good feeling about that tent…

“But…”

“The tent isn’t going anywhere! That might!” he exclaimed, pointing at the crowd while dragging his brother closer to it.

Lushace eyed it, clearly torn, but finally gave in. “Fiiiiinee!” Hern didn’t give him a moment to reconsider. The two squeezed between people until they were up front to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a little disappointing when it wasn’t an acrobat, a fire-eater, a magician, or anything of the sort that Hern had hoped for—just a short, stocky man taking small blocks the color of red clay, slathering a gray paste on them, and laying one on top of another to build a large box. It seemed he was almost done as the small structure was nearly as tall as he was.

Hern gave a small sigh and was about to turn and leave when Lushace grabbed his arm and pointed at the man. “What’s he doing, Hern?!”

Hern shrugged. “Building a box? I don’t know.”

“But…what’s it made of?!

“I don’t know…rocks?”

“Oh…I guess that is boring,” Lushace admitted, suddenly crestfallen. Hern rolled his eyes at him.

They didn’t have time to waste, and literally anything else had to be better than this. “Come on, let’s go to the tent,” Hern suggested, and Lushace nodded sullenly.

They turned to leave but found the path they had followed in had closed up as adult bodies pressed together to get a better view of the small man and his box. There was no nudging through them, as none were willing to budge if it meant they might lose their spot.

Hern and Lushace tried looking for any exit they could find, but nobody was willing to allow them through. Hern was about to start screaming when the crowd started emitting an oooohhh sound. Turning round, he saw the short man now standing atop his creation, his reddish square now a completed box supporting his weight without faltering.

It was close enough to a trick, and it caught Hern’s eye. How did he put together a box that fast with rocks that held him up? Sure, people did it with large stones, but not normally small ones…

Squinting to focus Hern wanted to know who the man was that had built it. The shorty was pretty rough-looking from their viewpoint. A big, bushy brown beard covered his face while a length of short, pushed-back hair cropped up on his wide head. He had a large, knobby nose and a gaunt, weathered face. His arms were big, burly, and covered in scars and burns from where they extended out of his rolled sleeves on his taut tan shirt. The man stood with his hands on his hips, staring down at the awe-inspired crowd around him, but he didn’t seem triumphant or boasting in demeanor. Possibly he looked…judgmental?

“All of you, hear me!” he declaimed, his deep voice rising high over the crowd’s. “I am a builder! I will build for you! But only if you need it! Tell me, who needs my work the most!”

A builder? Hern thought, crestfallen himself now. What good is a builder?

But the adults clearly didn’t share his perspective. What had been stationary, attentive persons suddenly turned into a loud and jostling mob shouting for the short man’s attention. Hern was forcibly knocked and bumped to and fro as his once-advantageous position became covetous and dangerous.

He tried dodging their stampeding bodies but found himself being knocked about like a ball in a box shaken by a deranged child. He was jostled about until he lost his footing and fell on the dusty ground at the base of the box.

He struggled to his feet, grasping the box’s rough edges to support himself. He looked around, taking in his situation. It was dire; the crowd was clamoring closer and closer. He didn’t even see Lushace anywhere, and if he didn’t do something, he was going to be beaten against the block any moment now. Panicking, he could hardly think over the din of people crying out, offering payments, promises, women, food, anything in exchange for the short man’s services on their properties…

Reacting on instinct, he turned to face the box and reached up to grasp its edge, the roughness digging into his fingers as he started to pull himself up. Angry shouts were followed by hands trying to pry him off the box. He clamped down tighter as his effort to clamber to safety now became a desperate clinging for life!

He was about to fall when the builder pulled him up and out of danger. A friendly and questioning gaze peered at his face. Hern looked down to see where he was placing his feet and saw that the man wasn’t standing on top of the box, but on the edges with his legs spread out in a balanced stance.

And when Hern put his full weight on the top of the square, he realized why. With a cry of surprise, the top gave way and his feet went loose. But the man grabbed him again, his grip tightening on Hern’s forearm to keep him held up. But it wasn’t enough and with deep oomph of surprise the short man fell, too, and the crowd cried out as the box crumbled in on itself.

“Fuck…” Hern gasped in pain from many small scrapes and cuts as the stones underneath him jabbed up into his back, his sides, and everywhere as he lay on a bed of jagged edges.

“Hern! Hern! Are you okay?!” he heard Lushace shouting. He looked down his body to see his brother scrambling through the dispersing crowd to help him up.

Coughing from the dust filling the air, Lushace pulled him up with a few groans, and Hern collapsed on the hard-packed dirt.

“Wow, you okay?!” Lushace repeated excitedly.

“Yeah… yeah…” Hern replied, shifting his legs in front of him to inspect the damage. They were covered in varied cuts and reddish dust. The two hues ran together and mixed with some blood, giving his skin the appearance of a grim, smeared artwork, but he was otherwise fine, with no breaks or large gashes.

Turning himself, he looked to the rubble and saw the short man pull himself out of it, giving off a few gruff groans and grunts as he did. Stepping out, he brushed dirt off and shook himself loose of the gravel sticking to his body and hair. By now the once-frenzied mob had already circulated back into the methodical and chaotic streams of the marketplace, no longer interested in the builder’s creation.

Hern looked back to frown at the man; standing fully on his own, without the box, he was only a little taller than Hern was, but he made up for it by being wider than Hern and Lushace together side by side. His bulky frame was indeed marred with many scars—old wounds, with a couple still slightly visible poking out around his beard and a large one trailing horizontally at an upward right angle across his forehead. Gray dust coated his brown beard and withered cheekbones, causing his close, twinkling eyes to shine all the brighter.

“Well, lad, that was a small disaster,” he said, nearly jovially. His voice had a thick accent to it, making understanding him require a little more effort than usual. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, thank Lilunai,” Hern said, scrambling to his feet to keep his composure. “What the fuck just happened?!” He tried to sound confident and threatening, but even he had to admit it didn’t come off that way.

“Yeah, you said you’re a builder!” Lushace added with an irritated sharpness, standing beside Hern.

“Oh, I am lad…” The man began to say.

But Hern wasn’t having it. “Then do better!” He turned to leave, “Come on Lu-Lu, let’s go.”

But Lushace didn’t move, “But…why did it break?” He asked quizzically, still irritated but clearly moving past what happened now that Hern was okay.

Mekune damn it.

“Truth be told, I did not expect…well…that to happen,” the man admitted. “I was not planning on company up there.”

“But why?” Lushace asked.

Hern grabbed his brothers arm and hissed at him. “Come on, Lu-Lu, let’s go back to our brother.”

“No, I wanna know!” Lushace whined back at him before shaking his hand free.

Hern sighed, and the man started talking again…

“Oh no, lad, it was not meant to fall.”

“But doesn’t that make you a bad builder?” Lushace prodded bluntly.

“Oh no, it does not,” he said with a wry smirk while wagging his finger at them both. “You see, the mortar takes a good while to settle, but I did not suspect my…creation…would last long in this… place. I had to make a show of it while I could. But you coming up there…that was too much for it to handle.”

“But you pulled me up there,” Hern shot out, annoyed.

“Of course, lad. I was not to watch you be trampled into my work.” He stated it as if it were obvious.

“Oh…”

“But…” The short man said with a sigh. “Seeing as you have run off my…buyers, would either of you be in need of a builder?”

“Um… I don’t think so,” Hern said, suddenly awkwardly feeling like an ass.

“I don’t know Hern, we could…” Lushace started.

“I don’t think a builder is what we need for a farm, Lu-Lu!” Hern snapped. “Let’s go!

“Does your farm have damage from the war?” the short man asked.

“Yeah, we do!” Lushace answered eagerly. “Our granary was ruined and… ahh… we need a new stable I think…. ummm… we…”

“Lushace!” Hern snapped. “We can’t afford a builder!”

“Oh, well… I am free,” the short man said.

“You…what?” Hern asked, suddenly confused.

“Yes, I want to work and help, for free.”

“But…”

“Ooohh, Dad likes free!” Lushace exclaimed.

“But…” Hern had a weird feeling about this. It didn’t seem like something they should decide on. And it didn’t sound like a good idea to bring this whack job back to their farm and their family! But if there was anyone who would find it a bad idea…

“Let’s ask Julian! He’s the adult here anyways,” Hern pointed out.

“What?!” Lushace asked, dumbstruck. “You never want to ask Julian!” Then he put his hands on his hips like his mother and stared Hern down knowingly. “You just want him to say no! You don’t care about the family or the granary or the stables or… anything!”

“Yes, I do!” Hern shouted back at his brother. By Lilunai, they didn’t even need new stables, they could just use better stables. No walls was kind of shitty when you wanted donkeys to stay in one place though…

He was about to say more when the man interrupted them. “Lads, let us take this to your…adult. We can talk it over with him, eh?”

With a huff Hern nodded and turned to walk off in the direction of their cart. Lushace and the man had little choice but to follow him. If anything good came of all this, it seemed that Lu-Lu had at least forgotten about that tent …

“I really wanted to see what was in that purple tent…” Lushace muttered, and Hern stifled a groan.

When Julian spotted them coming, his face twisted into a furious expression that melted into a concerned frown when he saw the short man following behind them.

“There goes my chance to ditch you two. Where’d you go?” Julian called out to them, his voice falsely comradely.

“Like you care.” Lushace scoffed as he walked past him and hopped up on the side of the cart. Some of its crops were missing.

Maybe he actually sold something, Hern thought.

Ignoring Lushace, Julian looked to Hern and asked with thin tension, “So, who’s your friend?”

Hern went to answer but the short man beat him to it.

“Kunab, my good sir,” he said, reaching out a beefy hand. Julian shook it with a forced smile on his face. “I am a builder, and I was offering my services to your farm.”

“Oh…great… One moment please.” His gaze shifted to aim daggers at Hern. “Hern, come here.” He obeyed, walking over to where Julian leaned his face in close and asked, “Why?”

“Why what?” Hern asked, feigning confusion.

“You know damn well what!”

“Well…” A sudden pain erupted on Hern’s left ear closest to Julian. “Ow ow ow…” Julian had pinched it tight; it felt fit to break off if he pulled any harder.

“You know we can’t afford any help, you little brat!” he lectured in hushed tones.

“Oh, but my services are free of pay,” Kunab said, as if he was a part of the conversation.

Julian’s brow furrowed deep as he turned around to face the man. “What?”

“Oh yes, I am wanting to help, not charge. But I will need a place to stay and some food, if that is not too much to ask,” Kunab said.

“Oh…” Julian mouthed. The pressure on Hern’s ear let up and Hern quickly massaged it, feeling if it was still intact. “Well…why? Nobody works for free around here,” Julian asked, as if it were preposterous.

“I do,” Kunab stated blandly.

“Really?” Julian asked, doubtful. “Where are you from?”

“I am from out of town.” Kunab replied with a cheery grin. “I am the best builder in the kingdom, I assure you.”

“Huh…” Julian said, tapping his finger on his chin, he paused for a while to think it over. “Sure, why not,” he said with a shrug. “Do you have a wagon or something, Mr. Kunab?”

“I do.”

“Go retrieve it and come back; we’ll take you to our father when we leave.”

“Very good, sir.” Kunab slapped his hands on his hips and gave a slight, curt bow before heading back into the marketplace.

Julian began walking back to their cart. “Come on, Hern. Time to sit still where I can see you.” Hern only nodded and obeyed, sitting down against the wagon as earlier.

He wasn’t about to ask aloud, but his mind was abuzz with confusion, Why did he say yes?! What is he thinking?!

Kunab came around with his cart a little later; it was filled to the brim with peculiarities. First there was a rounded thing with a square base that looked almost like a small mountain, all made from those rectangular rocks. Alongside that were a couple large trunks, one smaller personal trunk, and several barrels possibly containing food and water.

It was a little early to be leaving, since they hadn’t remained till sundown as their father had instructed, but there were few potential customers looking at their crops even now, and after the excitement of today, none of them felt like sticking around any longer. Hern and Lushace sat on either side of Julian as they headed out, the asses trotting along the road with Kunab following behind with his own cart.

They had hardly made it onto the main road when Lushace started whining. “Julian! Julian! Juulliiaaannn!”

“What?” Julian asked, the words dragged from the depths of his impatient soul.

“Slow down so we can ride alongside Mr. Kunab!”

“Why?”

“So we can talk to him, of course!” Lushace looked up at him with his most hopeful expression. This usually worked on his mother Aileen and their mother Hellin.

It seemed to work on Julian, too, who gave a deep, exaggerated sigh and pulled back on the reins.

Ugh, Hern thought, that doesn’t usually work. Maybe it’s a full moon today.

They said the Moon Silian Meetra did strange things to them when she was full and her power was greatest. But that was only if you believed in that sort of thing…a quick check of the sky confirmed it was only mostly full anyways.

When their carts were side by side, Kunab gave a nod and smile. Hern was closest to him now, with Lushace on the other side of Julian, much to their chagrin, as Lushace tried peeking over and around Julian to get a better view of Kunab and his cart.

“Kunab!” he cried out excitedly. “What’s that thing in your cart?!”

“What thing, lad?” Kunab asked mildly.

“The big thing!”

“Ah, that is a kiln.”

“What’s it for?!”

“I use it to fire the bricks.”

“Fire the what?” he asked, cocking his head to the side. He was nearly on top of Julian, whose good graces were quickly running out.

“The bricks, lad, the…things…I was building with before.”

“Ohhhh…” Lushace said loudly. “Where did you…?”

But that was all Julian was going to tolerate as he let out a frustrated grunt and put down the reins to grab Lushace and lift him over himself and nearly throw him into Hern. The two fell together and untangled themselves as they worked irritably to find room next to one another in the smaller space. Hern’s hindquarters was partially hanging over the edge as he held onto the cart’s flat seating.

And, to make matters worse, now he had a seemingly unfazed Lushace shouting near his ear. “Where are you from, Kunab?! You don’t sound like you’re from around here!”

“I am from out of town,” he said blandly.

“Where?”

“It is a village far away from yours.”

“Which one? My dad knows most of them.”

“Well…”

“Don’t pester the man,” Julian cut in. “If he doesn’t want to tell you, it’s probably cause he’s a bandit or a thief trying to rob us.”

“What? No, Mr. Kunab is all right! He saved Hern!” Lushace pointed out cheerfully.

“What?” Julian asked.

“Yeah, from the crowd! Then he let Hern fall on top of him when his box thing fell apart.”

“Sure thing, Lu-Lu, whatever you say.” Julian remarked mockingly, patting Lushace’s head hard.

“Don’t call me Lu-Lu, you shithead!” Lushace responded fiercely, glaring at Julian.

“I’ll get right on it, Lu-Lu.” Julian said dismissively.

Lushace gave a rude gesture, and Julian smacked him on the side of the head, the blow knocking him into Hern, causing the two to nearly cascade over the side of the cart. But Hern funneled some mannoi into his legs as they latched under it, keeping himself aloft while his fingers whitened on the edge.

But that only temporarily diffused Lushace’s enthusiasm, and once he recovered he began talking to Kunab again, this time over Hern. “So you’re a builder right? Our family could use one of those, I think! I mean, Dad has been complaining about the granary, the stables, the water catchers, the house, the farms, the labor…”

“We get it, Lu-Lu,” Hern snapped at him, straining under the effort to keep his muscles enhanced and precariously hold onto the cart.

“Yeah, we’re pretty new to farming,” Lushace prattled on. “Dad and Ju-Ju have been working on it for only, like, six years. Hern and I have only recently started helping with the real stuff for, like, two years now! Before that we just carried water, planted seeds, fed the pigs and cows, stuff like that! Have you ever worked on a farm before, Mr. Kunab?!”

Kunab nodded. “Oh yes, I have, but it was not the same kind of farm.”

“What kind of farm was it?” Lushace asked eagerly.

“I do not have the name for it, but it was a farm with a different kind of plant.”

Hern was losing his grip…

“Oh, that’s disappointing. So…”

“That’s enough, Lushace. Leave some questions for Dad,” Julian ordered irritably.

Lushace pretended not to hear. “So what are you gonna do with the farm?! It’s still got some damage from…”

A violent shake wracked Hern suddenly as Julian smacked Lushace again, and even though Hern had braced himself for it this time he still lost his grip…

Letting out a scream he started falling, his legs barely holding him as he lost focus and his mannoi escaped him. Just then, Kunab shifted his cart closer, and Hern’s aimless hands found a grip on a firm surface.

Nursing the side of his face with one hand, Lushace pulled Hern in and helped him sit back upright.

“What the fuck, Julian?!” Hern cried in panicked outrage.

But Julian didn’t say anything, just looked forward as they rode on. Hern let out a sigh as the trio rode on in silence with Kunab pulling back and behind their cart. They continued like this until they came upon their family’s farmlands.

Julian stopped short of the house about a yard from its front door. The sun was hanging low in the sky as evening time came upon them.

“Lushace, go grab Dad and have him come out here,” Julian ordered.

“Yes, sir…” Lushace grumbled as he hopped down and walked off to the house.

Kunab got down from his cart and the three waited in silence for a good while until he returned, their father in tow.

The sweat-stained man in his damp brown shirt and tan trousers walked directly up to Kunab first and offered his hand to the short man on the cart.

“Herban Fieldsman,” he stated.

“Kunab, nice to meet you, sir,” Kunab said with a smile, returning the handshake.

“I heard you kept my son Hern out of trouble today.”

Hern’s blood ran cold.

“Well…” Kunab began. “Children are children.”

Their father shook his head. “Can’t argue that.” He gave a light chuckle. Hern kept his mouth shut; it wasn’t to be a fun night. His father cleared his throat and spoke more formally. “So, Mr. Kunab, from what Lushace told me you’re a builder seeking work. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir. I was showing my skill in the market when your sons showed up. I am a very skilled builder.”

“Right. And you want to work for us?”

“If you would have me.”

Their father’s neutral expression never changed. “Well, I apologize to you then, Mr. Kunab, for coming out all this way, but we can’t afford the aid of anyone at this time.” He nodded squarely. “But I’m not about to turn you away empty-handed after helping my family. We can offer a hot meal and a roof for a night if you’d like.”

“Payment will not be necessary. All I require for my services is a room and food,” Kunab said plainly with another smile.

Their father opened his mouth to retort, but the words visibly died on their way and he stood there, stock-still for a second with his mouth agape. He recovered quickly and said to him, “Yes.” He shook his head. “Would you excuse me for one moment? I need to talk to my sons.”

Kunab gave a curt nod and their father began walking back to the house. Hern, Julian, and Lushace got the queue and hopped off the cart and headed after him. About halfway to the house, he stopped and turned round to face them as the four huddled up.

“Why did you bring him here, Julian?” their father asked, exhaustion creeping into his tone. “And be straight with me, man.”

Julian visibly suppressed a reaction before speaking neutrally. “He’s a builder, but I’m pretty sure he’s trying to rob us. Nobody works for free.”

“So you brought him here thinking he might rob us?” their father asked, frustration leaking into his voice now.

Julian shrugged. “I figured we’d take him to the cellar, work him over, and find out who he works for. I mean, come on, Dad. Somebody has to be hiring those raiders!”

“By the Twelve! Maybe, but even if that were true, we do not kidnap strangers to find out!”

“Then how are we going to stop the attacks?!” Julian shot back, his anger growing.

“We will figure it out later.” Their father made a chopping motion with his hand. “Right now, we have a guest out of nowhere who wants room and board for work.” He turned to Hern and Lushace, who were standing together. “What do you two think of him?”

Hern went to answer but Lushace beat him to it. “I like him! He built a big box of rocks! But it fell down and the people went away…”

Lushace told him what had happened, with Hern giving his side; by the end their father shook his head and straightened up, stretching his back out as he digested what they told him.

He let out a sigh after several considerable pops. “All right.” He nodded. “Julian, you head inside.”

“What, why?” Julian sputtered, surprised.

“Just go.”

“But…” He began, but then grew a very blank expression and he stated dispassionately, “Yes sir.”

“You two, come with me.” Their Father said to Hern and Lushace. They nodded as they followed him back down the hill to Kunab.

“Mr. Kunab.” Their Father said as he walked up. Kunab turned around to face them, his hands knit patiently in front of his gut. “I have talked to my boys about what happened in the market and, I have a question of my own.”

“Of course sir, what can I tell you?” Kunab said with curt nod.

“Your… box? It fell apart, why?”

Kunab let out a frustrated sigh and frowned. “I had rushed the make of the box. If I had let it set out for a day it would have been strong as stone. But it needed to be good then, so I could offer my services.”

Their Father nodded, but Hern doubted he understood any better than he did. “All right, we do need some work if you’re offering…”

Just then, their semi-peaceful listening was interrupted by the loud banging of the front door. Hern and Lushace winced simultaneously and slowly looked to the house, where they saw the terrible visages of their furious mothers at the threshold.

“Hern Mikal Fieldsman!” Hern’s mother called out. “Get your ass up here right now!”

“You too, Lushace!” Mother Aileen called out.

“Yes, Mom,” they both replied in defeated and anxious unison. Hern heard Kunab let out a soft chuckle as the two began shuffling their way up the hill to the house. He and their father resumed their talk like nothing was happening.

Their mothers stood aside to lead them in. The two brothers took off their shoes in the doorway and headed into the den, a small room with a fireplace, a wood couch and chair, a small table, and a few shelves with collections from their father’s prime hunting days, including the bear skin rug in front of the couches before the fireplace. Its maw toothless and quiet, its closed eyes seeing nothing; it always unnerved Hern to see the thing. He still remembered the hunting trip that felled it…the roar of rage, the fear pounding through him…

But that distracting thought was swiftly displaced as he glanced back to see all three of his mothers come into the room to loom over them like statues of judgement. Mother Aileen, the raven-haired woman with a soft look, cold eyes, and narrow features stood in a dark green dress on the left. His mother, Brolinda, with her brunette hair tied into a tight bun, her eyes the stuff of strict fire, and her muscular arms crossed in front of her cream-colored tunic. And to the right was Mother Hellin, the blonde-haired, bright-eyed joy of a woman with full features and a yellow and light blue dress.

But right now, none of them looked one bit happy to see the two brothers.

“Hern Mikal Fieldsman,” his mother said sternly, “what did you do?”

“And you, Lushace, what were you thinking?” Mother Aileen asked, just as sternly.

“I…I was…” Lushace fumbled his words. “I’m sorry!” He let out with a whine and broke down in tears as he started pleading. “I just wanted to see the market! And Julian got talking with someone so Hern said we should run and I just…”

“That’s not what happened!” Hern interrupted in outrage. “You are the one that wanted to slip away!”

But before Lushace could form a reply Brolinda snapped her fingers, the sound like the crack of a whip, silencing them. “It doesn’t matter who did it first, you both left Julian alone when you weren’t supposed to. You are both going to be shoveling the animal pens until winter.”

They both turned away from each other to make a plea, but Mom’s no-nonsense glare clamped their mouths shut before they could try.

Lushace turned his gaze away while Hern looked his mother in the eyes as they both said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now that that is over with”—his mother nodded and uncrossed her arms to lean down at them—“Hern, you have scratches all over your knees. Go see Juelle to get cleaned up, all right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with some strength this time.

“All right.” She stood back up and looked to Mothers Aileen and Hellin.

Mother Hellin crouched down and hugged them close. “You two get cleaned up and come down right away. We’ll have dinner and say our prayers, all right?”

They both nodded and said another, “Yes ma’am,” before Mother Hellin kissed their cheeks and the two headed out.

Hern headed up the stairwell in the front hall, the cuts on his knees bothering him some as he went, but he had had worse from working on the farm; mistakes happen, after all. Not to mention that time when the farm was attacked and they had to hide in the cellar…and that hunting trip the other time…

His mind was abuzz with memories as he walked up to and knocked on his sister’s door.

“Come in,” she called out.

His sister Juelle was sitting sidelong her bed in the middle of the room with her bare feet dangling as she sewed a cushion covering, the chicken bone needle flicking in and out of the soft fabric with every hand movement. She still wore the nice blue and white dress from this morning. There were two other empty beds for their sisters resting against the two walls with hers in the middle.

Still hard at work, like she always seemed to be lately. She was staring so intently at the fabric she hardly seemed to notice him standing there.

“Jul,” Hern said softly, trying to break her focus. “Jul.” He came over and waved at her.

As if roused from sleep Juelle blinked and looked up, seeing Hern as if he had just appeared there, despite her welcoming him in. “Oh, Hern, hey. Yeah, you just knocked…” Then she looked down as his legs, cut up with dried blood and dirt. She shook her head and stood up. “Come here.”

She walked him over to the washbasin, water pail, and shelves of herbal, medicinal, and cleaning supplies. Hern took a seat on a stool while she started soaking a rag to clean his legs with. Juelle was their household amateur apothecary, seamstress, baker, cook, and all-around jack-of-all-trades for Soft Labors.

But tonight she wasn’t her typical cheerful self. She seemed more distracted than usual, staring off into space while she cleaned and sanitized his wounds.

“You okay, Jul?” Hern asked with a little concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered distantly.

“You sure?”

“Yeah…” She set down the rag and slumped back with her knees under her, staring out the room’s only window. “It’s just…I don’t know…”

“What?”

“Well…don’t tell no one, okay?” She looked at him, her eyes threatening daggers.

“Of course,” Hern replied automatically, curiosity bubbling inside him.

“Well…” She looked longingly out the window again. “I’m thinking of leaving, Hern.”

He frowned. “But where would you go?”

“I don’t know…maybe Ellios…or Ellione, or Delhia,” she commented dreamily. “I hear Ellios is pretty crazy, but Ellione is supposed to be nice and quiet.” She frowned. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Ah…um…” Hern stammered. “What about your duties here?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Anyone can do those. Mother Brolinda or Mother Hellin… or Mom will take them over.”

Hern nodded. “Why do you want to leave?” he asked gently, worry growing in him.

Juelle gave a hard sigh as she resumed cleaning his legs. Her touch was growing rougher by the second as she focused intently on her task “I…” She stopped herself and gave a huff. “I…I don’t…it’s hard to explain Hern, and you wouldn’t understand.”

Hern shrugged. “Maybe I would.”

“No, you wouldn’t!” she snapped.

“Okay.” He relented with a sigh. “But if you leave, say good-bye at least.”

She gave a distracted nod as she finished her work. By the end of it, his knees were cleaned and the cuts were smeared in green paste and wrapped up in white cloth. He stood up and turned to his sister. She just gave a smile that only reached her lips. Hern returned it and thanked her before leaving.

Maybe he should tell Mom about this…Juelle always seemed to look up to her.

He headed downstairs and ate dinner with the family. They said their after-meal prayers, and he and Lushace underwent a million questions from their siblings about the marketplace, what happened, and who Kunab was.

He nearly got up the courage to tell his mom about Juelle. But when he went to do it he found his sister and Mother Aileen laughing together in the kitchen, gossiping together happy as can be.

Maybe she’ll be all right, he thought, and let it go.

The next month flew by in a painful slog of punishment, starting with Hern and Lushace being banned from the marketplace for life. Their first major chore was to clean the animal pens for a week, and after that it changed to cleaning out the donkey stables for another week, and then back to the animal pens, and back to the stables, and so on for so long they both became numb to the work. Lushace still complained from time to time about the smell though.

Their father had offered Kunab a small tool shack they had on the path between the house and the donkey stables. The tools were unceremoniously moved out to the stables for the time being.

At first Hern was insulted by the offer, as they had an empty guest room upstairs in the house, but Kunab took the offer without a single complaint, and after he made it home, he began work on the granary. But instead of attempting to repair the old, half-caved in shell of a building, he began digging a foundation for a new one. In between digging he was always mixing things in barrels, pouring them, and sliding stuff in and out of his kiln. Gossip was wild around the house about him and what he was really up to. Lushace and the younger kids wanted to get a closer look, but the older siblings like Julian, Juelle, and Ilmelli always stopped them. The youngest, Eillie, almost made it out before Mom nabbed her and delivered a quick spanking.

But after the first month things settled down. All anyone had seen Kunab do was work. No signals, no fires, no theft, nothing suspicious. Food was brought to him daily by one of their mothers and their father went to talk to him every now and again.

Then one shadowy evening Hern and Lushace were walking back to the house from the stables when their father waved them over to the mossy, stone-piled well.

Their father was busy bringing up a noisy bucket of water, and as it arrived so did the boys. He poured a mug and downed it in one gulp before pouring two more full and offering them out. Lushace tried to imitate their father and spilled half the water on himself while Hern took his time sipping it.

Their father shook his head. “Boys, I have a new job for you.”

“Oh praise Lilunai!” Lushace spurted out, holding his head away from his body so water didn’t run on his clothes. “I am so tired of cleaning animal shit!”

Hern and their Father laughed; with Lushace around, he didn’t have to express everything himself.

“Wouldn’t be a punishment if you liked it,” Herban pointed out. “Remember that smell next time you two are thinking of running off like that.” He gave them a knowing look and they nodded solemnly. “With that said, I want you two to assist Kunab tomorrow.”

Hern frowned. “With what?”

Their father shrugged. “Beats me. He asked for help, though, said it would speed up the work. And we’re good on selling the harvest and we’re about to finish the reseeding. So I’m giving him you two and Julian. Think of it as an extended punishment, but it might not be full of shit.” He smirked at his own wit.

“That shouldn’t be too hard. How bad can bricks be?!” Lushace pointed out optimistically.

“Yeah…” was all Hern said. He didn’t know what it was, but there just something off about Kunab. Something abnormal, like he was lacking something. He didn’t know how to explain it, and if he did no one would listen to him anyways. Not about something like this. They’d care if he told them Kunab had a knife or a torch or something incriminating like that.

There was nothing to do about it but what his dad told him to. At least he would have Julian and Lushace in case something happened.

Working for Kunab proved to be even harder than working for their father. From the time they finished their greetings, the short-muscled man was issuing orders and giving instructions. Lushace was put on mixing a paste out of sand, water, and various other ingredients, while Julian was put on mixing another paste out of clay, sand, water, and so on. Julian’s mixture was poured into molds of stone that were set in the kiln with a wooden paddle.

But that kiln though…

“Hojin’s Hearth, that’s hot!” Hern exclaimed as he backed away from the furnace.

“Yes, lad, you had best take care around it,” Kunab acknowledged.

“But…how is it so hot?” Hern asked, his desire to know overcoming his outrage at not being warned.

“I made it so,” Kunab answered as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.

“But…” Hern peered in the furnace, now from a safe distance away.

“Now we wait for a few hours. Then we will transfer them into the borgrad.” Kunab patted a solid metal black box that was as long and wide as a regular man. “They will sit in here for a month.”

“Okay…” he answered distantly while he bent down to peer inside the kiln better. There was a strange radiation inside the kiln, as if the air itself was on fire.

“And once we fill this box, we fill the next.”

Hern nodded. He nudged Lushace and pointed at the furnace. “You see that?”

“The fire?” Lushace asked mockingly.

“No…the air…”

“Yeah, dum dum. There’s air in there, and it’s hot!” Lushace mocked him sarcastically.

Hern waved him away. Maybe he was just seeing things.

As he would later learn, there were six borgrads total, and each could fit fifty bricks. It wasn’t until they began to lay the bricks with Lushace’s paste that Hern would realize how few this actually was. The goal was to make new bricks, lay the ones they had, make more, and so on, until the job was finished.

The borgrads themselves were somehow always heated on the inside. Kunab explained they were used to dry and finish the bricks after the kiln. And when Hern asked about them Kunab just gave the same stunted answer: “I made it so.”

When he peeked inside them the radiation was softer than the kiln, almost like slight ripples in water, and Hern still couldn’t tell if he was just seeing things. He rubbed his eyes and went back to work.

The job progressed as smoothly as anything can when you have three inexperienced workers on a project. Kunab had erected twelve pegs the size of small tree stumps and set them out in a rectangular shape buried mostly into the ground. They were currently matching up bricks together to lay out the floor of the granary.

After a month of complaints, mistakes, and learning, the four of them finished the floor, and with their father’s help hoisted it up and over the pegs to settle it down. From there the work became stacking bricks on top of it to form the walls and shape the door. They even built a small stairway to attach to the base leading to the door.

Once they had the process of it all down, it became rather monotonous labor. Nothing they hadn’t dealt with working on a farm before. If nothing else, it was a definite improvement over cleaning up the animal pens and stables.

One day, Hern was wheeling around a small cart full of bricks to lay down as Lushace scooped out the gray paste from a bucket with a small metal trowel. They were circling the entirety of the base laying one brick after another. Julian was on supervisor duty, something Kunab had given him, saying that he would be needed more later when the work was too tall for them.

At that time Kunab himself was off making more bricks not far away, sliding new batches into the kiln.

The short man had stressed the importance of no gaps between pieces. He was very adamant about doing a perfect job in general, and Hern had taken to it pretty well if he might say so. It was boring, but it beat grinding wheat and millet all day, if not by too much.

Julian had been sitting there for a while now, staring off into space while Hern and Lushace toiled away. Hern would have felt pissed for him getting an easy job, but he suspected Kunab had given it to him because nearly every brick he placed had to be corrected. He was supposed to critique them on their work if they made any mistakes, but Hern didn’t see that happening any time soon as his eldest brother just stared up at the sky.

Then, as if out of nowhere, Hern caught him whisper, “You know what, fuck it.”

“What?” he asked.

Julian got off the barrel he had been lounging on, spat, and started walking off to the house.

“What…Julian!” Hern called out, stopping mid-work. “Where are you going?!”

But his brother didn’t say anything as he continued walking to the house. Hern saw Kunab look over, but he didn’t make a move to stop him.

“Come on, let’s keep going,” Lushace said quietly. “You know how he is.”

Hern shook his head.

Why is he so unreliable?

The rest of the day they worked at laying their bricks until the cart was empty and the paste bucket and barrels were dry. If he had one complaint about work with Kunab, other than the monotony, it was the hours. They had to work from sunup to dinner at sundown, similar to their usual routine during harvest time. But it wasn’t harvest time during this season, which solidified the reality of their punishment, as it kept them from their relaxed autumn routine. They knew better than to complain though, and Kunab sure wasn’t the sort to let them go because they didn’t want to work. Unlike with Julian, their father backed it up when he punished them.

This evening of work was no different as they were expected to go out again after dinner to help with more brickmaking. An unusual weekly routine their father was more than okay with.

He called it extra lookout duty and they were supposed to keep their eyes peeled for any bandits, thieves, or arsonists sneaking on the property. If they saw any they were supposed to run back to alert their Father and Julian.

Hern wiped his brow. Not like he’d actually help. Probably just stand around while they robbed us blind.

They had regular nightly lookouts from the second story of the house, and it had been a good while since someone had tried something against their farm. But still, Hern felt nervous being out after dark. Especially since the War, when they had to hide in the cellar more than once to keep safe from raiders. Their father had taught him and Lushace how to use a bow and with Julian had taught them how to fight bare-fisted, and even a little with a blade, but still, Hern had never been in a real fight. Their father or Julian always rushed out to run off anyone unwanted at the farm, and nobody had ever tried anything at the marketplace except for mocking them, so he had never had a chance to prove himself…

He shook off such thoughts as he walked out the front door and down the path through the wheat field to the left of the house to where the slowly forming granary stood next to the old ruined one. This was the last standing field in the farm, and it took up a good chunk of land. They already had more wheat and millet than they could store, and harvesting the rest of it was a chore no one wanted to take up even this late in the season. But they couldn’t leave it forever—Mom always swore it was too good a place for raiders and thieves to hide.

It didn’t do anything good for his anxiety to think of that as he walked through it.

In the dusk, Kunab’s kiln burned orange and yellow like a small ember amidst the sparse trees and patchy grass next to the tall field of wheat. Trees were a priority these days, being felled by anyone with half a mind since foresting had become a death-defying labor. But Mother Aileen really wanted some to stay for the scenery and relaxation; she said trees were important for them to have. She liked to do her exercises by them—a bunch of stretches, flips, and whatnot.

The knot in his stomach loosened slightly as he came up to the small camp where Kunab and Lushace were already at work loading molded bricks into the kiln.

“Welcome, lad,” Kunab said. “Go mix some more brick paste, would you?”

“Yes, sir,” Hern said, going about the task of opening the various barrels that Kunab had brought along, each filled with all manner of ingredients meant for making the mortar and brick pastes. Getting right how much to mix for each recipe had been difficult at first, but Kunab was a patient teacher.

All was going well while the sun went down and darkness flooded the land and the moon began to shine in its pale glory. They were finishing up by setting the second to last batch of freshly fired bricks into a borgrad when a sharp cry sounded from somewhere in the wheat fields.

“What was that?” Lushace asked.

Fuck, a raider! What was he supposed to do? Hern wheeled around toward the house, but it didn’t look like anyone was coming. No one had given the signal.

“Do not worry, lads, I will handle it,” Kunab said calmly, closing the borgrad and latching it shut. “You two head back to the house; there may be more, so be careful.”

“Wh…what?” Hern stuttered. “What are you…?” He turned to face Kunab but the strange man was silently wading into the tall wheat field.

“Why did he leave?” Lushace asked.

“I don’t know,” Hern replied, just as dumbstruck as his brother.

Fuck! He hated it! He hated being as useless as Lushace! His brother who only ever whined and complained!

“Okay, think… think think think…” he muttered to himself hastily.

Suddenly he heard the scream of a little girl enhanced by mannoi coming from the house—Eillie’s warning of an attack!

Then, as though in response to it, there was a second scream of terror from the wheat fields, and a dark shape materialized in the darkness above, flew through the air, and landed with a hard thud near the brothers. Hern and Lushace ducked down to avoid it, and Hern nearly bolted off at a run but his curiosity grabbed him and he stood still to look at the shape. It took him a moment to recognize it as a man, his silhouette further revealed by the curses that flowed from his mouth like the babbling stream of a river.

Hern grabbed Lushace’s arm and pulled him toward the house. He saw his father and Julian come outside, looking ready to fight. Hope rose inside him as Julian started calling out and his father loosed an arrow toward the fields. He looked down to watch his footing when a loud boom resounded from the house as if a tree had just fallen. Instinctively, Hern fell to the ground and covered himself, taking an unprepared Lushace with him.

He looked up and saw through lines of grass a large boulder rolling away from the house where his father and brother had just been.

Was that the boulder from the wheat field? And it was rolling down the hill, a little in their direction…

No, it was fully in their direction! Hern kicked dirt in plumes behind him as he scrambled to his feet, his hand still clenched on Lushace, who scrambled to keep up. Hern bolted to the side as the slowly rolling boulder passed the soft depression they had just escaped and rolled a little farther before settling on its side in a new location, in the path through the fields.

And that’s when he saw it.

Something big, something mean, something feral, something terrible. It was as tall as three men, it was as large as ten, and in the shadows of the moonlit night it was a hulking nightmare. It looked directly at Hern with glowing yellow eyes and he froze, his blood turned to ice. It leaned forward, the wheat crops pushed away by its hulking flesh, and it let out a monstrous, terrifying roar. It sounded like the pits of the netherworld screaming at him, like a thousand horrid animals crying their anguish.

Hern’s knees buckled under him, the creature beginning to saunter toward him as he sat there frozen still. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t move, he could barely breathe.

The beast began to lope toward him, gaining speed as it crossed the wheat field’s threshold and its lower body, a bloated gut and stubbly legs, came into view.

Suddenly something obstructed his vision of the monstrosity, and it took Hern a second to recognize the shape as the man who had landed on the ground earlier.

“Fucking shit fuck fuck…” He continued swearing his life away as he raised a small blade up feebly before the loping abomination. “Get away, kids!” he cried through gritted teeth.

Then he heard shouting from somewhere else. It sounded like Julian…

Run… Run… Run. Run run run run run run run!

Feeling returned to his legs, and he started to scramble up and drag along his limp brother. He frowned as he noticed a small head poke up around the beast’s shoulders from its back. With nimble movements, the figure scraped further up and swung something shiny into the creature’s left eye.

The monster let out another terrible roar, this one filled with anger and pain as it lashed about. The small figure held on tight, not letting go for an instant as the creature thrashed around.

Go, go, go, go! Hern started to scramble again and he managed to reach the side of the house where the rock had smashed not long before. Pockets of warming light seeped through the cracks rent in its surface.

Amid the confusion and the chaos and the bestial screaming he heard a soft note travel along the air, as if carried by a breeze. It sounded lilting, and it took a moment for his shocked mind to recognize it was the sound of a horn. But Hern’s fear overtook him as he ran inside and slammed the door shut behind them. He and Lushace fell to the floor, collapsing on the walk-in mat, dirt flaking off them onto the welcome area as they heaved fresh air into their ragged lungs.

All he could hear was the panic thudding in his ears, the blood rushing, keeping him active, keeping him going.

He tried to get up but was stopped by a tender yet firm grasp. He looked up to see Mother Hellin’s worried expression peering down at him.

“Hern, relax, sweetie.” She was speaking as if through water. “Let go sweetie, you’re hurting him.”

Slowly Hern registered what she meant and looked down at his right hand, still clenched in a death grip on Lushace’s wrist. After a moment of staring blankly at the taut flesh, he managed to release his brother, revealing stark white skin underneath.

“What…?” he mumbled.

“Come on, sweetie,” Mother Hellin said, helping him and Lushace up. “Let’s get to the cellar with the others. We’ll all pray together, all right?” She led them through the house to the back door near the cellar entrance. Hern was about to turn around and run back inside, but her assurance was enough to keep him going forward. She had always been so right about these things in the past…especially during the War…

Praying would be nice.

His hammering heart claimed otherwise, but he was too numb to listen to it.

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